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Mikhail Gorbachev
1931 -


By gently pushing open the gates of reform, he unleashed a democratic flood that deluged the Soviet universe and washed away the cold war
By TATYANA TOLSTAYA for Time Magazine

In 1985, when the first rumblings of Gorbachev's thunder disturbed the moldy Soviet silence, the holy fools on the street — the people who always gather at flea markets and around churches — predicted that the new Czar would rule seven years. They assured anyone interested in listening that Gorbachev was "foretold in the Bible," that he was an apocalyptic figure: he had a mark on his forehead. Everyone had searched for signs in previous leaders as well, but Lenin's speech defect, Stalin's mustache, Brezhnev's eyebrows and Khrushchev's vast baldness were utterly human manifestations. The unusual birthmark on the new General Secretary's forehead, combined with his inexplicably radical actions, gave him a mystical aura. Writing about Gorbachev — who he was, where he came from, what he was after, and what his personal stake was (there had to be one) became just as intriguing as trying to figure out what Russia's future would be.

After he stepped down from his position as head of state, many people of course stopped thinking about him, and in Russian history, that in itself is extraordinary. How Gorbachev left power and what he has done since are unique episodes in Russian history, but he could have foreseen his own resignation: he prepared the ground and the atmosphere that made that resignation possible. Gorbachev is such an entirely political creature, and yet so charismatic, that it's hard to come to any conclusions about him as a person. Every attempt I know of has failed miserably. The phenomenon of Gorbachev has not yet been explained, and most of what I've read on the subject reminds me of how a biologist, psychologist, lawyer or statistician might describe an angel.

Gorbachev has been discussed in human terms, the usual investigations have been made, his family tree has been studied, a former girlfriend has been unearthed (so what?), the spotlight has been turned on his wife. His completely ordinary education, colleagues, friends and past have all been gone over with a fine-tooth comb. By all accounts, Gorbachev shouldn't have been Gorbachev. Then the pundits study the politics of the Soviet Union, evoke the shadow of Ronald Reagan and Star Wars, drag out tables and graphs to show that the Soviet economy was doomed to self-destruct, that it already had, that the country couldn't have gone on that way any longer. But what was Reagan to us, when we had managed to overcome Hitler, all while living in the inhuman conditions of Stalinism? No single approach — and there have been many — can explain Gorbachev. Perhaps the holy fools with their metaphysical scenario were right when they whispered that he was marked and that seven years were given to him to transform Russia in the name of her as yet invisible but inevitable salvation and renaissance.

After the August 1991 coup, Gorbachev was deprived of power, cast out, laughed at and reproached with all the misfortunes, tragedies and lesser and greater catastrophes that took place during his rule. Society always reacts more painfully to individual deaths than it does to mass annihilation. The crackdowns in Georgia and Lithuania — the Gorbachev regime's clumsy attempts to preclude the country's collapse — led to the death of several dozen people. Their names are known, their photographs were published in the press, and one feels terribly sorry for them and their families. Yeltsin's carnage in Chechnya, the bloody events in Tadjikistan, the establishment of feudal orders in the central Asian republics and the massive eradication of all human rights throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union are, however, regarded indifferently, as if they were in the order of things, as if they were not a direct consequence of the current regime's irresponsible policies.

Corruption did exist under Gorbachev; after Gorbachev it blossomed with new fervor. Oppressive poverty did exist under Gorbachev; after Gorbachev it reached the level of starvation. Under Gorbachev the system of residence permits did fetter the population; after Gorbachev hundreds upon hundreds of thousands lost their property and the roofs over their heads and set off across the country seeking refuge from people as angry and hungry as they were.

No doubt Gorbachev made mistakes. No doubt his maneuvering between the Scylla of a totalitarian regime and the Charybdis of democratic ideas was far from irreproachable. No doubt he listened to and trusted the wrong people, no doubt his hearing and sight were dulled by the enormous pressure and he made many crude, irreversible mistakes. But maybe not. In a country accustomed to the ruler's answering for everything, even burned stew and spilled milk are held against the Czar and are never forgiven. Similarly, shamanism has always been a trait of the Russian national character: we cough and infect everyone around us, but when we all get sick, we throw stones at the shaman because his spells didn't work.

When Gorbachev was overthrown, for some reason everyone thought it was a good thing. The conservatives were pleased because in their eyes he was the cause of the regime's demise (they were absolutely right). The radicals were happy because in their opinion he was an obstacle to the republics' independence and too cautious in enacting economic reforms. (They too were correct.) This man with the stain on his forehead attempted simultaneously to contain and transform the country, to destroy and reconstruct, right on the spot. One can be Hercules and clean the Augean stable. One can be Atlas and hold up the heavenly vault. But no one has ever succeeded in combining the two roles. Surgery was demanded of Gorbachev, but angry shouts broke out whenever he reached for the scalpel. He wasn't a Philippine healer who could remove a tumor without blood or incisions.

Strangely enough, no one ever thought Gorbachev particularly honest, fair or noble. But after he was gone, the country was overwhelmed by a flood of dishonesty, corruption, lies and outright banditry that no one expected. Those who reproached him for petty indulgences at government expense--for instance, every room of his government dacha had a television set--themselves stole billions; those who were indignant that he sought advice from his wife managed to set up their closest relatives with high-level, well-paid state jobs. All the pygmies of previous years, afraid to squeak in the pre-Gorbachev era, now, with no risk of response, feel justified in insulting him.

The pettiness of the accusations speaks for itself. Gorbachev's Pizza Hut ads provoke particular ridicule, and while the idea is indeed amusing, they pay his rent. The scorn reminds me of how the Russian upper crust once castigated Peter the Great for being unafraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Amazingly, in our huge, multinational country, where the residents of St. Petersburg speak with a different accent from those of Moscow, Gorbachev's southern speech is held against him. After his resignation, Gorbachev suddenly became very popular in an unexpected quarter: among young people. He became an element of pop culture, a decorative curlicue of the apolitical, singing, dancing, quasi-bohemians. It was fashionable to weave his sayings into songs: in one popular composition Raisa Gorbachev's voice says thoughtfully, "Happiness exists; it can't be otherwise," and Gorbachev answers, "I found it."

In the 1996 election, 1.5% of the electorate voted for him. That's about 1.5 million people. I think about those people, I wonder who they are. But I'll never know. The press hysteria before the election was extraordinary. Ordinary people no longer trusted or respected the moribund Yeltsin, but many were afraid of the communists and Gennadi Zyuganov, so the campaign was carried out under the slogan the lesser of two evils or better dead than red.

All my friends either voted for Yeltsin, sighing and chanting the sacred phrases, or, overcome by apathy or revulsion, didn't vote at all. I asked everyone, "Why not vote for Gorbachev?" "He doesn't have a chance," was the answer. "I would, but others won't, and Zyuganov will be elected as a result," some said. This, at least, was a pragmatic approach. But it turns out that there were 1.5 million dreamers, people who hadn't forgotten that bright if short period of time when the chains fell one after another, when every day brought greater freedom and hope, when life acquired meaning and prospects, when, it even seemed, people loved one another and felt that a general reconciliation was possible.


Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (born 1931) was a member of the Communist Party who rose through a series of local and regional positions to national prominence. In March 1985 the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party elected him general secretary of the party and leader of the U.S.S.R. He resigned in 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev was born into a peasant family in the village of Privolnoe, near Stavropol, on March 2, 1931, and grew up in the countryside. As a teenager, he worked driving farm machinery at a local machine-tractor station. These stations served regional state and collective farms, but were also centers of police control in the countryside. Gorbachev's experience here undoubtedly educated him well about the serious problems of food production and political administration in the countryside, as well as the practices of the KGB (the Soviet secret police) control, knowledge which would serve him well in his future career.

In 1952 Gorbachev joined the Communist Party and began studies at the Moscow State University, where he graduated from the law division in 1955. Student acquaintances from these years describe him as bright, hard working, and careful to establish good contacts with people of importance. He also met and married fellow student Raisa Titorenko, in 1953.

With Stalin's death in 1953 the Soviet Union began a period of political and intellectual ferment. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and paved the way for a major restructuring of the Soviet Union's political system and economic administration. For young party activists like Gorbachev this was a period of exciting innovations and challenges.

Gorbachev returned after his graduation to Stavropol as an organizer for the Komsomol (Young Communist League) and began a successful career as a party administrator and regional leader. In 1962 he was promoted to the post of party organizer for collective and state farms in the Stavropol region and soon took on major responsibilities for the Stavropol city committee as well. Leonid Brezhnev rewarded his ability by appointing him Stavropol first secretary in 1966, roughly equivalent to mayor.

Climbing the Party Ladder

Soon afterwards, as part of the party's new campaign to assure that its best career administrators were thoroughly trained in economic administration, Gorbachev completed an advanced program at the Stavropol Agricultural Institute and received a degree in agrarian economics. With this additional training he moved quickly to assume direction of the party in the entire Stavropol region, assuming in 1970 the important post of first secretary for the Stavropol Territorial Party Committee. This position, roughly equivalent to a governor in the United States, proved a stepping stone to Central Committee membership and national prominence.

Gorbachev was assisted in his rise to national power by close associations with Yuri Andropov, who was also from the Stavropol region, and Mikhail Suslov, the party's principal ideologist and a confidant of Leonid Brezhnev, who had once worked in the Stavropol area as well. Gorbachev also proved himself a shrewd and intelligent administrator, however, with an extensive knowledge of agricultural affairs, and it was largely on this basis that Brezhnev brought him to Moscow in 1978 as a party secretary responsible for agricultural administration. His performance in this capacity was not particularly distinguished. The Soviet Union suffered several poor harvests in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and its dependency on foreign grain imports increased. Yet Gorbachev gained a solid reputation, despite these problems, as an energetic and informed politician, with an activist style contrasting rather sharply with that of most aging Kremlin leaders.

The ascension of Yuri Andropov to power after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in January 1980 greatly strengthened the position of his protegé Gorbachev. Both men showed impatience with outmoded administrative practices and with the inefficiences of the Soviet Union's economy. Andropov's death returned the U.S.S.R. briefly to a period of drift under the weak and ailing Konstantin Chernenko, but Gorbachev continued to impress his colleagues with his loyal and energetic party service. Beginning in October 1980 he was a member of the ruling Politburo.

A New Type of Russian Leader?

As he took power in March 1985, Gorbachev brought a fresh new spirit to the Kremlin. Young, vigorous, married to an attractive and stylish woman with a Ph.D., he represented a new generation of Soviet leaders, educated and trained in the post-Stalin era and free from the direct experiences of Stalin's terror which so hardened and corrupted many of his elders. His first steps as head of the party were designed to improve economic productivity. He began an energetic campaign against inefficiency and waste and indicated his intention to "shake up" lazy and ineffective workers in every area of Soviet life, including the party. He also revealed an unusual affability. Britons found him and his wife Raisa "charming" when he visited England in December 1984, and he showed a ready wit, "blaming" the British Museum, where Karl Marx studied and wrote, for Communism's success. Shortly after taking power Gorbachev also moved to develop greater rapport with ordinary citizens, taking to the streets on several occasions to discuss his views and making a number of well-publicized appearances at factories and other industrial institutions. In addition, he began strengthening his position within the party with a number of new appointments at the important regional level.

A charismatic personality, Gorbachev also had the youthfulness, training, intelligence, and political strength to become one of the Soviet Union's most popular leaders. Upon assuming power in 1985, he was faced with the need to make significant improvements in the Soviet Union's troubled economy - an extremely difficult task - and to establish better relations with the United States, which might allow some reduction in Soviet defense expenditures in favor of consumer goods. In November 1985 he met with President Reagan in Geneva to discuss national and international problems. Little progress was made but both leaders agreed to hold another "summit" meeting in the United States in 1986.

When new tensions developed between the two superpowers, the leaders agreed to hold a preliminary meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, October 11-12, 1986. But the clearest signs of improving Soviet-American relations came in 1988. Gorbachev made a positive impression when he entered a crowd of spectators in New York City to shake hands with people. In May and June of the same year, President Reagan visited Moscow.

Within the Soviet Union, Gorbachev promoted spectacular political changes. His most important measure came in 1989 when he set up elections in which members of the Communist Party had to compete against opponents who were not Party members. Later that same year, he called for an end to the special status of the Communist party guaranteed by the Soviet Constitution and ended the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan.

Two issues, however, caused growing difficulty for Gorbachev. First, there was the problem of nationalities, as the Soviet Union consisted of nearly 100 different ethnic groups. As the political dictatorship began to disappear, many of these groups began to engage in open warfare against each other. Such bloodshed came from longstanding local quarrels that had been suppressed under Moscow's earlier control. Even more serious, some ethnic groups, like the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians began to call for outright independence. Second, the country's economy was sinking deeper into crisis. Both industrial and agricultural production were declining, and the old system, in which the economy ran under centralized control of the government, no longer seemed to work.

Yet, Gorbachev was apparently more willing to make changes in government and international affairs than to focus on the problems associated with ethnic diversity and the economy. Perhaps influenced by more conservative rivals, he cracked down on the Lithuanians when they declared their independence in the summer of 1990. Also, he gradually tried to move toward a private system of farming and privately-owned industry.

At the same time, a powerful rival began to emerge: once considered an ally, Boris Yeltsin became the country's leading advocate of radical economic reform. Although forced from the Politburo, the small group at the top of the Communist Party, in 1987, Yeltsin soon established his own political base. He formally left the Communist Party in 1990, something Gorbachev refused to do, and was elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991. Gorbachev, on the other hand, had been made president of the Soviet Union without having to win a national election. Thus, Yeltsin could claim a greater degree of popular support.

Fall From Power

In August 1991, a group of Communist Party conservatives captured Gorbachev while he was on vacation in the Crimea and moved to seize power. Some of these men, like Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, were individuals Gorbachev had put in power to balance the liberal and conservative political forces. But Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, led the successful resistance to the coup, which collapsed within a few days. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he was overshadowed by Yeltsin, and there were rumors that Gorbachev himself had been involved in the coup.

By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen apart. When most of its major components like the Ukraine and the Baltic states declared themselves as independent, real power began to rest with the leaders of those components, among them Yeltsin, hero of the attempted coup and president of the Russian Republic. Gorbachev formally resigned his remaining political office on Christmas Day 1991.

Private Citizen

As a private citizen, Gorbachev faded from public view, but continued to write and travel. On one occasion, his travels struck an important symbolic note. On May 6, 1992, he spoke at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. There, in 1946, Winston Churchill had given his classic speech coining the term "the Cold War." Gorbachev's appearance was a vivid reminder of the changes he had helped bring about during his seven years in power.

In the spring of 1995, Gorbachev began touring factories in Russia, spoke to university students, and denounced President Yeltsin. He stopped just short of formally announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1996. He wrote an autobiography, which was released in 1995 in Germany and 1997 in the United States.

Like many historical figures, Gorbachev's role will be interpreted in varying ways. While a Russian factory worker stated in Newsweek, "He destroyed a great state … the collapse of the Soviet Union started with Gorbachev …," some critics in the West saw the fall of Communism as "altogether a victory for common sense, reason, democracy and common human values."











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008